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Harming the Innocent to Punish the Guilty

Mythology, madness, and cannibalism in very jealous families

There are three harrowing stories here, one modern, and two from Greek mythology. They tell the same emotional tale, but with different characters. Mental derangement, jealousy and resentment, and profoundly dysfunctional families are at the heart of the stories. Two of these are make-believe. One is real. The terrible harm that is inflicted on the innocent in order to punish the guilty is exaggerated in these tales. The punishment is cannibalism. But the underlying causes are not make-believe. They are played out every day. (Wikimedia Commons)
Procne, Philomela, and Tereus

The sisters have murdered little Itys. They’ve made a meal of him for his unsuspecting father. That's the famous Procne in the center. With her sister Philomela she’s holding up the head of her son, Itys, to taunt her husband, Tereus. This is after he’s unsuspectingly eaten the meal. They’ve made him a cannibal. You can see Itys’ remains on the dish on the table.

What were the motives of Procne and Philomela? Tereus, the King of Thrace, had abducted and raped Procne’s sister when she came from Athens to visit his court. He cut out her tongue to stop her from betraying him to his wife. But the truth eventually was out and Procne, in equal measure, jealous of the betrayal by her husband but horrified for her sister, killed her son by Tereus, Itys. She cooked him and served him as a meal to her rapist husband. You cannibalize the innocent to punish the guilty in a story like this. This is the logic of the mentally unbalanced - and that is how the ancient narrators saw Procne and Philomela.

Let’s step forward three or more millennia to a small town in rural Australia. Mrs Katherine Knight worked there and she was a meat processor in the local abattoir. Mrs Knight was very proud of her trade and liked to keep a set of her butcher’s tools on the wall of her bedroom in Aberdeen.

Katherine Knight


But on February 29, 2000, Katherine Knight took her tools down. She used them on her de-facto husband John Price (Pricey to his friends). Mrs Knight stabbed her 44-year-old common law husband 37 times with a butcher's knife. Katherine Knight then skinned Pricey and hung his hide from a meat hook in their living room. Even that was not enough for this proud and skilled butcher. Katherine decapitated John Price and put his head in a pot on the stove. She baked the flesh from his buttocks and served it accompanied by baked potato, pumpkin, zucchini, cabbage, yellow squash and gravy.

The meal was intended for Mr. Price’s grown children, Jonathan and Beck. Katherine served for two at the dinner table that night and provided nameplates made from kitchen paper alongside each meal. There was also an explanatory note.

Why did Mrs Knight do it? Was she a modern Procne? The marriage between Knight and Price had been in strife. Mrs Knight was renowned for her temper. But there was nothing in Katherine Knight’s background that would let you predict cannibalism. The three court-appointed psychiatrists didn’t agree that she was insane, though she did suffer from Borderline Personality Disorder. They don’t seem to have offered had a clear motive. But Katherine had committed the crime and confessed. That was evidence enough for the court to be able to be pronounce a sentence.

Mrs Katherine Knight became the first Australian woman to receive a life sentence without possibility of appeal. That was in 2000. She appealed in 2006 against the weight of the judgment. The appeal was rejected by Justices Peter McClellan, Michael Adams and Megan Latham in the New South Wales Court of Criminal Appeal. Justice McClellan wrote in his judgment "This was an appalling crime, almost beyond contemplation in a civilized society."

Why did she do it? Here, for help, I’d like to look again at Greek mythology. This time it’s the story of Thyestes and Atreus. Thyestes seduced Aerope, the wife of his brother Atreus. Atreus was the king of ancient Argos. Aerope plotted to get her lover onto the throne and succeeded. Atreus lost the kingship and his wife. But the legends make him more outraged at his wife’s infidelity than at the lost throne.

Atreus gained his revenge by killing his nephews, Thyestes’ sons. He cut the boys up and cooked them, but without head, hands, and feet. Then he served them up to Thyestes. Thystes, now a cannibal, was forced into exile and Atreus regained the throne. Atreus punished his brother for seducing his wife Aerope with a gruesome meal and unplanned cannibalism. It’s getting very close to Mrs Knight in Aberdeen, NSW.

Wikimedia Commons

The mask of Thyestes

Source: Wikimedia Commons

But what about Mrs Knight? Is she another Atreus? Did she cannibalize the innocent to punish the living? The beginning of the note from Mrs Knight that was left on the dinner table with the remains of her partner John Price shows how this might be the case. It runs as follows:

“Time [I] got you back Johathon [Jonathan, Price’s son] for rapping [raping] my douter [daughter]. You to[o] Beck [Price's daughter] …”

The note seems to say that Jonathan had raped Mrs. Knights’ daughter. How Beck fits in is impossible to know. The presiding judge at the first trial ruled that there was no evidence at all to support the accusations made in the note. So he suppressed it. But it certainly looks as if Katherine Knight believed, though wrongly, that this was what was happening. Her motivation wasn’t just – or wasn’t even – killing John Price because he wasn’t faithful enough to her. It was to get back at his children, Jonathan in particular, whom she thought incorrectly were having improper relations with her child. That’s not too different to why Itys was killed and that why Thyestes’ innocent children were killed and cooked.

You can see how the myths of Procne and of Atreus help to unravel some of the crazy skeins of the Aberdeen story. Katherine Knight was close to what once was termed mad. She had been diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder and two of the three consultant psychiatrists at the first trial believed her chances for cure were “nil”. She was and “would remain a person dangerous to others.” And Mrs Knight presided over the most dysfunctional of families in which jealousy and resentment had grown apace and out of control. All the three of these stories demonstrate how the innocent are cannibalized, are punished so as to harm the living.

I can’t explain why cannibalism is common to these three psychopathological stories. The echo of the myth through time makes you think that there really is something to be said for archetypal patterns of psychological response and behaviour. Perhaps it’s the case that in extreme situations, imagined or real, there is a limited range of ways of imagining yourself out of the emotional impasse. This is especially the case when these situations entail jealousy and resentment, when they occur within extremely dysfunctional families, and when the aggrieved member lacks full rationality. But why the desire to harm the innocent so as to punish the guilty, the apparently guilty, should take in cannibalism is beyond me.

And yet this killing, if not the cannibalizing, of the innocent to harm others is the cruelest but most common of ways to act. It is hard-wired into humans. In Aberdeen, just as was the case in Oklahoma City, New York, London, or Boston, the guilty are only guilty to the damaged apperception of those who punish. This version of “cannibalism”, if I can use the term metaphorically, seems to have become almost popular these days. It’s chilling that the pedigree for this form of emotional derangement goes right back, without much relent, to Greek mythology and even to Greek tragedy.

[Thanks to Michelle Le Roux of GRST 313 & 457 W2015 for telling me about Aberdeen.]

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